Clean elections group wants to set limits on PACs

Morning Sentinel
Press Clips
Susan M. Cover
Monday, October 18, 2004

morning sentinel

Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

AUGUSTA -- Maine is the only New England state that doesn't limit the amount of money special interests can give to political action committees that benefit politicians.

But if the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections coalition has its way, that will change next year. The coalition, which pushed for limits on the amount of money that can be given directly to legislative candidates, is now seeking to expand the law to include political action committees.

"Like the direct contributions to legislators, it raises at least the appearance of undue influence if someone gives $10,000 or $30,000 to a PAC controlled by one legislator or a handful of legislators," said Arn Pearson of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund.

As it is now, wealthy individuals or corporations can give an unlimited amount of money to the committees, some of which are formed by political parties to support candidates. The Clean Elections coalition is proposing to put a cap on contributions, although it has not discussed an amount, Pearson said.

Supporters say it's the next logical step in campaign finance reform in Maine, which has been a leader with efforts to limit the influence of special-interest money.

The new limitation would apply only to committees that benefit politicians or political parties, not referendum causes such as the tax cap proposal. Other states have limits that vary from $500 to $5,000, Pearson said.

Pearson said that several years ago, large pharmaceutical companies threatened to pull thousands of dollars from a PAC that supported Democrats because a fellow Democrat was proposing legislation they didn't like. That's the type of influence the coalition, which includes groups like the AFL-CIO, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, hopes to limit.

"This would stop the problem before it starts by making the contribution amount small, so we don't create a sense of obligation on the part of a candidate who may be receiving money from the PAC," said Barbara Burt, Common Cause regional coordinator.

It's estimated the law change would affect about 30 committees that raise and spend money on behalf of politicians. The group plans to bring its reforms forward to the Legislature in January.

In addition to limiting contributions to political action committees, the group also supports a prohibition on transfers from one committee to another. That's important because once limits are in place, contributors will try to find a way around the limit by giving money to another group with the understanding that it will be transferred later, Pearson said.

"This whole area is rife with gamesmanship," he said.

In 1996, Maine voters approved a law that limits direct contributions to $250 for legislative candidates and $500 for gubernatorial candidates. The law also created the Clean Elections program, which gives candidates the option of using state money for a campaign rather than money from private sources.

The program has proven popular, with 75 percent of legislative candidates participating in Clean Elections this year.

Eric Johnson, co-chairman of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said the state needs to continue to take a comprehensive approach to limiting the influence of well-funded and well-organized groups.

"The danger is the government will be influenced more than is appropriate by a subset of the interests," he said.

The coalition is also considering a proposal that will give limited public funding to Clean Elections candidates who want to run for a leadership position, if they can show they have support from fellow legislators.

"The ultimate goal is to have a Legislature people feel confident is responding to the concerns of the voters, and not to monied interests," Pearson said.

Susan M. Cover -- 623-1056